Royal Maundy is a religious service in the Church of England held on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. At the service, the British Monarch or a royal official ceremoniously distributes small silver coins known as "Maundy money" (legally, "the Queen's Maundy money") as symbolic alms to elderly recipients. The coins are legal tender but do not circulate because of their silver content and numismatic value. A small sum of ordinary money is also given in lieu of gifts of clothing and food that the sovereign once bestowed on Maundy recipients.
The name "Maundy" and the ceremony itself derive from an instruction, or mandatum, of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper that his followers should love one another. In the Middle Ages, English monarchs washed the feet of beggars in imitation of Jesus, and presented gifts and money to the poor. Over time, additional money was substituted for the clothing and other items that had once been distributed.
Beginning in 1699 the monarch did not attend the service, sending an official in his place. The custom of washing the feet did not survive the 18th century. In 1931 Princess Marie Louise was at Royal Maundy, and afterwards suggested that her cousin, King George V make the distributions the following year, which he did, beginning a new royal custom. Traditionally, the service was held in or near London, in most years in the early 20th century at Westminster Abbey. Today, Queen Elizabeth II almost always attends (she has been absent only four times in her reign), and the service is held in a different church (usually a cathedral) every year. Recipients were once chosen for their poverty and were entitled to remain as Maundy recipients for life; today new recipients are chosen every year for service to their churches or communities, on the recommendation of clergymen of various Christian denominations. Generally, recipients live in the diocese where the service is held, although this is being varied in 2011.
Maundy money is struck in denominations of one penny, two pence, three pence, and four pence. Until the 18th century the coins given were from the circulating coinage, and it was not until the latter half of the century that the four Maundy coins developed as distinct, noncirculating pieces. The obverse design of the coins features the reigning monarch. The reverse, with a crowned numeral enclosed by a wreath, derives from a design first used during the reign of William and Mary, and which has been virtually unaltered since 1822. In most years there are fewer than 2,000 complete sets of Maundy money; they are highly sought after by collectors.